I’m staring out the window of a cab as I travel from JFK to Manhattan, the main hook of Taylor Swift’s song Welcome to New York is looping in my head. It’s perfect Instagram material. The view is familiar. Iconic. I have been to New York many times and it always seems the same. Even on my visit shortly after 9/11, when the Manhattan skyline had a murderous hole ripped into it, the city still felt reassuringly the same. But this time…
As backdrop for so much film and television, the shiny skyscrapers and grimy streets of New York are such a familiar sight. Often New York’s presence onscreen is so looming in the background that she steps forward and becomes a character in her own right. Her glistening skylines have inspired film-makers, photographers and painters but the lustre is looking decidedly lacking of late.
Maybe it’s the Trump effect?, I wonder, as the car rattles along freeways desperately in need of resurfacing, swerving regularly to avoid massive potholes. The rattling would be bone-shattering if traffic didn’t regularly bring the pace to a crawl. Didn’t America used to be more impressive?
Make America Great Again is a phrase that unsettles many US Americans who wonder ‘at whose cost?’. It just irritates me because it appears exclusionary, arrogant and ignorant of history, or —worse still— it wilfully ignores it. It is also sufficiently vague to mean nothing and something at the same time. What do they mean by ‘great’? I guess the answer is in the ‘again’. It’s something that somebody thinks America used to be… but isn’t any longer. It’s funny but few seem to specifically mentions ‘infrastructure’.
The cab crosses the Williamsburgh bridge into lower Manhattan and I’m immediately taken in by the buzz. I haven’t been here in a while – my last visit was in 2013. In the meantime, Obama and “Yes We Can” have gone, leaving Trump and #FakeNews. Things have changed. But some things haven’t changed. In fact, they haven’t been touched at all.
The New York of my childhood defined how I thought of a big city: it was tall, shiny and (comparatively) new. These days there are a lot of cities that are bigger, taller, shinier and newer. New York is ageing. Much of its infrastructure dates from the first part of the 20th century: large parts of the subway and sewer systems are 90 years old, the water mains are 70 years old, and more than half of the city bridges were built before 1950. All of it is decaying and falling apart. Public buildings that once screamed modernity are now out-dated and in need of a facelift. I can only imagine what they are like inside; those 1930s elevators and toilets and corridors and offices spaces. How much longer can these buildings serve as centres of government, as hospitals or as schools? Train systems that are relied upon by millions of commuters and tourists every day are barely fit for purpose. Derailments are becoming regular occurrences. Regular people are being forced out of Manhattan due to sky-rocketing rents or intolerable conditions, which is slowly turning The Big Apple into a residential club for the rich, a business village and a theme park for tourists.
There is constant construction about the place but most of the ubiquitous roadworks is due to investment by private utilities companies digging up the roads to lay pipes and cables. Gentrification of once scruffier areas is bringing new office block skyscrapers, condominiums and it’s largely funded by private equity. It’s interesting that construction in the private domain is giving New York the impression of a city on the make… but without maintaining its infrastructure, how much longer the city can keep running, walking and driving?
New Yorkers know there’s a problem. Their politicians blame semi-state bodies for ‘decades of underinvestment’. Meanwhile, these very politicians insist on pursuing policies of trickle-down economics and tax cuts, which slashes public spending, so where do they think this investment is going to come from? It’s funny how easily Free Market Capitalists forget that they too depend on public infrastructure to live their lives and run their businesses.
Making America Great Again is going to cost and it’s a case of “Pay now or pay —heavily— later”.